Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Llandinabo, Herefordshire

Church woodwork, or, Odd things in churches (10)

I have made it part of the business of this blog to bring you the odd, the unusual, and the unexpected, and I’ve found that English churches sometimes contain the most unexpected things of all. Over the years we have had a fire engine, a ducking stool, and, particularly dear to me, Milner’s Patent Fire-resistant Safe. I didn’t expect to find anything odd at Llandinabo, a church I’d passed quite a few times before I got round to stopping there. I’d read that there was some interesting woodwork – a fine screen – in the church, but, just for fun, here’s a very different kind of woodwork that I also found.

There seemed to be nothing to tell me who’d made this matchstick model of the church, which stands on a window ledge inside the building it reproduces. It’s painstaking, reasonably accurate, and a joyous bit of English, or Welsh, eccentricity. (Llandinabo is in England, but, as the name signals, it’s not too far from the Welsh border.) The modeller has caught the pierced roof ridge tiles, the timber-framing of the bellcote, and the openwork wooden porch, although he (I feel sure it was a he) had trouble with reproducing the exact pointed shape of the Gothic windows. But never mind. Anyone who can get this far deserves an alpha for effort as far as I’m concerned. I was reminded of the Eccentric Corner at the South Bank exhibition of the Festival of Britain where, apparently, there was a violin made of matchsticks, which Laurie Lee (exhibition caption writer) picked up and played quite successfully.

Of course, in the world of matchstick modelling, this is very modest stuff. A quick online search reveals people who have spent years making models of complex buildings like Notre Dame in Paris. There’s a particularly good one of Llandaff Cathedral, made by one Bill Tucker. Hats off to people with patience!

Friday, March 16, 2018

Surbiton, Surrey

Southern Electric

A while back I renewed my acquaintance with Surbiton station, and was struck again by its white walls and its design that seems to exemplify what was seen as modern in the 1930s. What does it remind you of? An Odeon? A 1930s radio set? At any rate it’s a symbol of how the Southern Railway saw themselves in 1938: as sleek, forward-looking ’Southern Electric’, keen to tell you that the railways were the modern, convenient way to travel.

The station is the outstanding work of J R Scott and he threw the modernist works at it – flat roofs, white walls, tall window openings, fins, the very simple clock dial, the sans serif lettering – everything, as railway historian Gordon Biddle points out, except for concrete platform awnings.* If this white, flat-roofed building is an interloper in the middle of Surbiton (cliché adjectives: leafy, quiet, prosperous…) it stands back from the road and holds its own without intruding. As I hastened to the platform to catch the 0911 to Waterloo, I appreciated its light interior and generous circulation space too. And today’s equivalent of Southern Electric† got me to my appointment with time to spare.

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* Gordon Biddle, Britain’s Historic Railway Buildings (OUP, 2003)

† A good train but not in the smart green livery of 1938. For railway colours, see my post of long ago here.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Soho Square, London


Last weekend I was due to drive down to Somerset to teach a course on Tudor and Stuart architecture. Somerset was one of the parts of Britain to receive the rare ‘red weather warning’, so the course was cancelled and none of us got stuck in the snow. One of the things I was going to talk about was the impact of the Great Fire of London and the fact that very few timber-framed buildings have been constructed in the capital since 1666.

Here is one exception, the hut in the middle of Soho Square. It might look like a survivor from the pre-fire era, but in fact it was built in 1925. Its original purpose was to disguise the entrance of an underground electricity substation, built for the Charing Cross Electricity Company. The substation is no longer active and the subterranean space was used as an air-raid shelter during World War II. Now the building is a gardeners’ hut, full of spades and the like. I’m not sure how the upper floor is used.

This little building feels visually generous – the arcades, pointed roof, bits of carving, and fancy bargeboards were hardly necessary, but provide just the right sort of fun for the centre of a busy square that’s now a popular place to relax. It’s here on the blog as a reminder – to me, to talk to the organisers about rescheduling my course, and to all of us, that after the snows, spring cannot be far away.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Wreay, Cumbria

Pinecones and ammonites

To mark International Women’s Day, I am posting today some pictures of what I think is one of the most outstanding and extraordinary buildings designed by a woman, the church of St Mary, Wreay. Here is what I wrote about the church in December 2012, when reviewing Jenny Uglow’s biography of Losh, The Pinecone:

St Mary’s Wreay looks more like a work of the Arts and Crafts period of the 1880s than a building of the 1840s. But not even the Arts and Crafts produced a structure quite like this, covered with carvings that are far outside the usual church orbit – a tortoise gargoyle, a crocodile, a dragon, lotus buds, gourds, and pinecones (the latter symbolic variously of creation, reproduction, enlightenment, the spirit of man, and the expansion of consciousness). There are carved angels, it is true, but otherwise you have to look hard to find much traditional Christian imagery. It is as if Sarah Losh, having daringly entered the male preserve of architecture, looked at the whole business from a different viewpoint, that of a kind of pan-religious perspective, where all faiths are as one.

By describing Sarah
’s church in such detail, Jenny Uglow also describes her somewhat elusive subject, Sarah herself and her concerns. The church is an act of making and also an act of mourning (for Sarah’s parents and sister and other family members); it is both a gathering together of diverse religious symbols and a very specific act of benevolence to the village of Wreay itself, to which Sarah also contributed a school and numerous hand-outs in times of need; it is both a display of traditional craftsmanship and an artistic bolt out of the blue. Uglow's book nails all this – but does not lose sight of the oddity of the place or the elusiveness of its creator.

The photographs (credits below) show the interior of the apse and one of the windows. The window surround is carved with ammonites and pinecones, two of the building’s presiding symbols.

Photographic credits: Apse photo by The Carlisle Kid; window photo by Rose and Trev Clough, both used under CC licence CC BY-SA 2.0

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Fairford, Gloucestershire

Fashion and craftsmanship

The snow has come down and put a halt, for now, to architectural exploration. Here’s a memory of another year’s snow, just visible lingering in Fairford, on Gloucestershire’s and the Cotswolds’ eastern edge. This house is just to the north of Fairford’s great church and was built as the lodge at the entrance of Fairford Park, a notable house that was demolished in 1957. Fairford Park was a 17th-century house but was modified later and had interiors of 1789 by Soane. It’s a sad loss, although one or two elements from the interiors were recycled elsewhere – the staircase, for example, ended up at Corsham Court, in Wiltshire.

This lodge is dated by Pevsner to c. 1800, just after the Soane alterations to the main house. It was the Gothic windows at the front that caught my eye – and that was the point of them. Back in the early 1800s builders were still putting up traditional Cotswold houses with rectangular, often stone-mullioned windows. But if you wanted something to stand out, pointed Gothic windows with intersecting tracery were just the thing. So this is a striking facade for a building that’s meant to be recognisable, to announce the entrance gate to the Park. There’s also a bay window at the side, with a different glazing pattern – this multi-aspect bay clearly helped the occupant keep an eye on the comings and goings through the gate.

So the pointed windows help to make the house a landmark, as does the lovely Cotswold-stone-tiled hipped roof, rising to a single chimney. These hipped roofs are not the most common type on the Cotswolds, where most houses have gabled roofs, but they’re delightful, with their great cascades of stone slates. These slates are large at the bottom, progressively smaller as you go up. Their production and fitting was one of the great accomplishments of the traditional Cotswold builders, and a reminder that, for all its fashionable ‘look at me’ character, this house is also a repository of craftsmanship and skill.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Seven Springs, Gloucestershire

Silent springs

There’s not a lot at Seven Springs, in the parish of Cobberley not far from Cheltenham: a largish mid-19th century house now a school, and the tiny parcel office in my previous post, and, well, seven springs. The springs are a contender for the ultimate source of the River Thames, although Thames Head, near, Kemble, is more usually cited as the source. Seven Springs is strictly the source of a small river, the Churn, which flows into the Thames at Cricklade.

As I was looking at the parcel office I decided to walk a few yards further along the road and visit the springs. They were bubbling away quietly, sending water from the subterranean rocks out through seven small holes. But it wasn’t really the right time of year for a photograph. The place was looking muddy and dark and, apart from a fetching clump of snowdrops, rather dingy. So I had a look at the stone tablet, which asserts the place’s claim in bold Latin – ‘Here, Father Thames, is your sevenfold spring’ – and resolved to return to Seven Springs when the weather is better and the ground less muddy.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Seven Springs, Gloucestershire

Staging post

This tiny building was always a bit of a mystery to me. Passing it years ago, I’d assumed it was a bus shelter, before I reflected that its position at a road junction would not be a convenient stopping-place for a big bus; it’s even less convenient now the junction has been converted to a double roundabout.  So I filed it away mentally, and put it down to the work of some local philanthropist offering shelter to passers-by.

Then, a few months ago I heard a reference to ‘the old parcel house at Seven Springs’. This is what it is, as a little googling confirms: a building where parcels were left and transferred from one carrier to another. The siting at a junction now made more sense, as the traffic passing here could be on the Cirencester to Cheltenham road or the one crossing it, which links Stow-on-the-Wold with Gloucester. In the direction of Stow, it also connects with the road to London.

I’m still not sure how long the parcel office has been there. It seems to be 19th century and the Victoria County History confirms that it was there in 1894. The Gothic openings and thatched roof lend it a picturesque air, although one might have expected it to be walled in Cotswold stone, like many a small bus-shelter in these parts. It must be a long time since it was in use, and one hopes it will survive when the roof reaches a state beyond pleasing decay.

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Postscript: Having looked at this again, I’m convinced that the brickwork is relatively recent and must date to a rebuild of the structure. This is confirmed by a drawing I have located online, showing a tiled roof, a more elaborately carved window opening, and other differences. More research is required.